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True believers

Nets reap ratings from reality shows

The success of ABC’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” has forced the networks to get real this November — and fast.

After four days, “Millionaire” has averaged a 14.2 Nielsen rating and 22 share, winning its time period in every outing and forcing rival networks to rethink their monthlong strategies.

One result will be more reality programs.

Most recently, NBC hastily announced the return of “World’s Most Amazing Videos” to its schedule for two episodes starting next Monday, and Fox added two more episodes of “Greed” to its lineup (Daily Variety, Nov. 11).

It’s not just a dumping ground for attack animals, wild police-car chases and shocking behavior caught on tape anymore. As the genre continues to expand, so does the networks’ reliance on it.

“Four years ago, before the clip shows started on Fox, there was barely any reality on network TV,” said Fox’s Mike Darnell, exec VP of specials and alternative programming. “Now it’s become a viable, inexpensive form of programming. When it’s done right, it gets you a decent number very quickly.”

Most reality programs are economical — about $500,000 an episode, versus millions for an hourlong drama — and pull respectable numbers.

Real easy

Reality is easy to promote. And for networks owning more of their own programming, there’s an increasingly sweet backend to be found internationally.

“You’re looking at shows these days getting picked up with an 11 share,” said UTA partner Chris Harbert. “You can put a reality show in there that does the same number, but is cheaper to produce.”

Traditionally, the genre’s main problem has been that the programming tends to be schlocky, appealing to advertiser-unfriendly downmarket demographics.

While the more extreme “caught on tape” programs may still scare away advertisers, the next generation of reality is friendly enough to attract even the shakiest sponsors.

Alternative programming

“The knock on reality TV is that it’s cheap and exploitative,” said “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” executive producer Michael Davies. “This type of programming (‘Millionaire’) has an expensive production quality. It’s blue chip. We’ve shown that people can do different kinds of alternative programming.”

ABC has built its entire November sweeps strategy around the return of the hot “Millionaire” quizshow, while Fox has relied on the gameshow “Greed” to keep the lights on.

And CBS quickly brought back “Candid Camera” when the new sitcom “Love & Money” started to flounder.

For midseason and summer, CBS and NBC have revivals of classic gameshows such as “Twenty-One” in the works. Dabbling in the “Real World” school of cinema verite are ABC (with its Transcontinental Records boy band project), CBS (with “Survivor”) and Fox (with an R. J. Cutler high school project).

There’s nothing new about reality programming creeping onto the networks’ schedules. But reality this decade has mostly revolved around just one genre: the video clip, or “caught on tape,” variety.

Two views of reality

ABC’s “America’s Funniest Home Videos” and Fox’s “Cops” ushered in that era — one providing a lighthearted look at everyday folk that paved the way for shows such as CBS’ “Kids Say the Darndest Things” (itself revisiting “Art Linkletter’s House Party” of radio and early TV), the other offering a darker side that was a precursor to lurid caught-on-tape programs such as Fox’s “When Animals Attack” specs.

Those sensational clip shows — which former NBC West Coast prexy Don Ohlmeyer once likened to “snuff films” — helped foster reality’s low-rent image.

“There was this glut of programming with hard, edgy clips and particularly salacious shows with hidden cameras showing people doing all kinds of things that really trashed it up in a big way,” said producer Bruce Nash, who created NBC’s “World’s Most Amazing Videos” and UPN’s “I Dare You,” among other properties.

“At that time and place, that’s what reality TV meant because that’s what the networks were airing and that’s what the producers were producing,” he said.

Fox, which practically developed the reality genre, tried to take a step away from it this fall after realizing that good household ratings didn’t translate into big upfront dollars.

That’s not to say the “When Animals Attack” subtype is an endangered species.

ABC just inked a deal with Unapix to produce a series of “Totally Out of Control” specials, NBC has “World’s Most Amazing Videos” on the back burner, and Fox still has a host of specials like this month’s “When Good Pets Go Bad 2.”

“When the right ones come along, they still work — as long as you don’t oversaturate with the same topic over and over again,” Fox’s Darnell said.

Eye opening

But the success of “Millionaire” and cable skeins such as MTV’s “The Real World” and A&E’s “Biography” has opened network eyes to the sheer diversity of what might be labeled “reality.”

“When shows like ‘Millionaire’ and ‘Greed’ come on the air, it reminds you that this genre is much bigger, much broader,” Nash said. “What we need to do is keep coming up with new ideas to expand this area rather than doing the same show over and over.”

Much of what the networks are doing now in reality used to be the domain of cable or syndication. But that line between cable and network has blurred.

Ironically, it’s cable’s encroaching summertime gains that have the networks scrambling for more cable-style reality shows.

The networks can’t afford to program original comedies and dramas in the summertime, and those rarely work anyway (see CBS’ “Thanks” or ABC’s “Maximum Bob”).

Reality series, on the other hand, have shined in recent summers. ABC’s “Whose Line Is It Anyway” and “Millionaire,” and Fox’s “Guinness World Records: Primetime” all eventually found their way into the regular season after hot summertime perfs.

“Look at summer reality; it’s the only thing that’s fresh,” said LMNO Prods. prexy Eric Schotz, whose company produces “Kids” and “Guinness.” “You bring them back during midseason, and the network hasn’t taken any risk.”

Heftier crop

Expect an even heftier crop of reality to pop up this coming summer. CBS already has announced “Survivor” and the revival of “What’s My Line,” and the other networks aren’t far behind.

With development under way, ABC’s Andrea Wong, vice president of reality and alternative series, said she’s looking for companion pieces to “Whose Line” and “Millionaire.” She’s also examining various docusoap ideas, including the boy band project.

Interactive projects that involve ABC’s online properties are also in the works.

NBC has the midseason series “Comedy Bytes” from Nash, which he calls the next version of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” — but with Internet clips.

And producers and executives predict a continued broadening of the genre. It’s telling that some of the networks have created entire staffs devoted to programming shows that don’t fit under the headings “drama” or “comedy.”

“There are now vice presidents of reality and alternative series,” UTA’s Harbert noted. “That’s something you didn’t see a lot of a few years ago. The barriers have been breaking down.”

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